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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The constraint social and moral concerns place on individual
desire is perhaps the novel’s most prominent theme, since Ethan
Frome’s plot is concerned with Ethan’s desire for a woman
who is not his wife. By denying Zeena a single positive attribute
while presenting Mattie as the epitome of glowing, youthful attractiveness,
Wharton renders Ethan’s desire to cheat on his wife perfectly understandable. The
conflict does not stem from within Ethan’s own heart—his feelings
for Mattie never waver. Instead, the conflict occurs between his passions
and the constraints placed on him by society, which control his
conscience and impede his fulfillment of his passions.
Again and again, Wharton displays the hold that social
convention has on Ethan’s desires. Although he has one night alone
with Mattie, he cannot help but be reminded of his domestic duties
as he sits in his kitchen. He plans to elope and run away to the
West, but he cannot bring himself to lie to his neighbors in order
to procure the necessary money—and so on. In the end, Ethan opts
out of the battle between his desires and social and moral orders.
Lacking the courage and strength of will to face down their force,
he chooses to abandon life’s burdens by abandoning life itself.
Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is described by
an old man as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” As the
story progresses, the reader, and the narrator, begin to understand
more deeply the meaning of this statement. Although a wintry mood
grips Ethan Frome from the beginning—even the name
Starkfield conjures images of northern winters—the narrator appreciates
the winter’s spare loveliness at first. However, he eventually realizes
that Starkfield and its inhabitants spend much of each year in what amounts
to a state of siege by the elements. The novel suggests that sensitive
souls like Ethan become buried emotionally beneath the winter—their
resolve and very sense of self sapped by the oppressive power of
the six-month-long cold season. Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield;
when he was younger, we learn, he hoped to leave his family farm
and work as an engineer in a larger town. Though Zeena and poverty
are both forces that keep Ethan from fulfilling his dream, the novel
again and again positions the climate as a major impediment to both
Ethan and his fellow townsfolk. Physical environment is characterized
as destiny, and the wintry air of the place seems to have seeped
into the Starkfield residents’ very bones.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!